Karolina Marisa: “Exploring EU referendums through problem-based learning”

A problem-based workshop on EU referendums was offered to CBIR double degree students during the Tampere Autumn School in November 2017. The workshop was part of the course “Integration and Disintegration in Europe: Theory and Practice” taught by Hanna Ojanen and Sarah Kilpeläinen. In this report, CBIR student Karolina Marisa reflects on how the exercise was organized and whether it succeeded in facilitating learning.

The Problem Based Learning (PBL) method aims to enhance students’ learning through collaboration and applying what they have learned during the course in practice. It was first introduced as pedagogical tool in the field of medicine and has later become popular across disciplines (Hung 2008, p. 486). The method is innovative in the sense of enhancing students problem-solving skills and self-direction; it challenges students to apply knowledge rather than focus on acquiring factual knowledge, as is commonly the case in a traditional lecture setting (Hung 2008, p. 495).

Focus on group dynamics

In the Tampere workshop, the students were assigned in groups. The groups were then asked to determine which role each group member would take in the workshop. These roles included a chairperson, a secretary and a timekeeper. The role of the professor was replaced by the role of a tutor, who then facilitated the process and encouraged participation.

As the topic of the workshop was referendums, each team was assigned a specific European country to work on. Each team introduced their strategy to others in a six to eight minute presentation without any specific instructions on how to conduct the presentation. The assignment was presented to each group as follows:

You are a citizen of X. Yesterday, your government made the decision to organize a referendum on whether to leave the EU or not. You are encouraged by the possibility for political discussion. You decide to devise a strategy to communicate your position on the referendum and to influence the outcome of the referendum, based on a network of involved stakeholders. You also start thinking of suitable ways to communicate your strategy to a broader audience.

The groups consisted of team members with various academic and cultural backgrounds. Additionally, most of the group members did not know each other before the workshop. With more homogeneous groups the starting point would have also been rather homogeneous, and the groups might have been more efficient in forming a consensus on how to perform the task.

These are all factors that influence the groups’ allocation of the limited resource that they are working with, i.e. time. When the guidelines of the assignment are flexible, the familiarity of group members on the subject matter varies and new social dynamics emerge, the allocation of time may seem to limit the depth and accuracy to which the groups can consider the problem at hand.

Challenging students to learn more

While most of the groups formed strategies that could be implemented in practice, some of the statements that students came up with might not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Basing all the necessary arguments on scientific sources for such a multifaceted subject would have taken familiarization and above all — time.

However, while these might appear as problems in traditional university teaching, in the case of the PBL method the approach to knowledge and learning is different. The aim of the method is to formulate new knowledge through the problem-solving exercise and to challenge the students to learn more.

This is also why students are not equipped nor presented with a certain procedure to follow in order to solve the given problem. Instead they need to work together, discuss and innovate possible courses of action and finally select a suitable one to solve the presented problem. Through the exercise, students create new knowledge by helping each other to form new connections, both theoretical and practical, through sharing knowledge (Jalava et al. 1999, p. 117).

In PBL, it is especially important that the students are not able to solve the problem on the basis of knowledge they already have individually before taking part in the exercise. The problem needs to challenge the students to delve deeper into the problem in order to be able to understand the processes and mechanisms influencing it. While the groups tackle the task independently, they also form their own learning objectives in the process. The expected result of the PBL method is to learn from the process rather than present a viable solution to the problem (Schmidt 1983, p. 11–16).

How did it work out?

The PBL method was especially suitable for a course such as “Integration and Disintegration in Europe”, which was taught as part of the autumn school of the international CBIR double degree programme.

The diverse set of perspectives and emerging connections between the group members who had not known each other before the course provided a particularly fruitful opportunity for the students to learn something new. This setting resulted in versatile and creative solutions.

The countries represented by the six groups were Poland, Finland, Austria, Latvia, Italy and Denmark. Denmark was the only group that promoted leaving the EU, while the Italy group presented both pro-EU and anti-EU strategies.

The students had a varying level of familiarity with the states they were working on, which had a major impact on the strategies that were formed and the arguments that the strategies were based on. For example, in some groups one or more members were nationals of or had other connections to the examined state. This had an effect on collective learning: as some members were able to learn a great deal from certain group members, they might have taken a less pro-active stance toward learning themselves.

The group working on the Latvian context, for example, showed relevant insights that would most probably go unnoticed without group members that were previously familiar with Latvia. For example, they noted that it is important to acknowledge the Russian speaking ’minority’ in reality represents a large part of the Latvian population.

The group representing Finland stood out with their presentation of the reasonings behind choosing to be pro-EU. This was undeniably less challenging for a group where Finnish citizens were exploring a familiar context. In an unfamiliar context, the time resources would have only allowed the group to scrape the surface of complexities of a referendum on EU membership. They would have hardly been able to identify the relevant influencer stakeholders, as was the case here.

Due to the lack of resources, the Italy group decided to present a more general outlook on both the ’stay’ and ’leave’ campaigns instead of an in-depth analysis. This provided an interesting overview of the factors to consider. By contrast, in the case of Denmark — the only anti-EU strategy presented — a more radical stance was lighter to approach as the group members had no previous knowledge or emotion-based biases on the subject.

This comes back to Schmidt’s (1983, p. 11–16) argument that for the PBL method to work in the best way possible, it is helpful that participants are not be able to form a solution solely on the basis of previously acquired knowledge. Considering the PBL method, it might be a better idea to allocate students to groups so that no one has major links to the states that they are working on. Those coming from a certain country would still be able to share their knowledge by commenting on the presentations. This would reduce the imbalance of expertise within groups while offering the means to collectively learn from the others’ practical experience or knowledge.

Considering the diversity of the groups, the exercise and presentations were carried out in a surprisingly similar way. Some of the groups put an extra effort into the presentation.


The Austria group went beyond the traditional Power Point  slides, chosen by most, to provide a visually intriguing presentation. The Denmark group had even prepared flyers to hand out to the audience as a real life experience of how the campaigning would be carried out! This evoked an emotional response through humor and the surprise element with a personal connection.

Some of the presentations, such as the Austria group, had also included statistical backing for the presented arguments while others, such as the Denmark group, were focusing more on appealing to the emotions of voters. All in all the exercise was carried out well. It unquestionably provided further insight into the issue of referendum and voter behavior, which is a significant factor concerning the (dis)integration developments in the EU.


Hung, W., Jonassen, D.H., & Liu, R. (2008). Problem based learning. In Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. Ed. J.M. Spector, M.D. Merrill, J. van Merriënboer, & M.P. Driscoll. London: Routledge.

Jalava, U., Palonen, T., Keskinen, S., & Kontkanen, L. (1999). Osaaminen yrityksessä. Turku: ESR & Turun yliopiston täydennyskoulutuskeskus.

Schmidt, H.G. (1983). Problem-based learning: rationale and description. Medical Education, 17, 11–16. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.1983.tb01086.x

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